A bus full of Turkish tourists, had just departed from Alexandroupoli. It was filled with bags, some of which contained soil from areas of northern Greece, where their ancestors used to live. Others were overflowing with new things: toys, clothes, even images of saints from the historic churches of Thessaloniki. The bus’ storage space was filled to the top and the driver complained in good humor, “There is no more room for your bags!”
This happened just last week but it is a common phenomenon with Turkish travelers. “The shelves of a famous toy store in Alexandroupoli were literally empty when the Turkish tourists left” said Nermin Yusufoglu, who works with Turkish travel agencies to organize trips in Greece.
She also notes that depending on whether the shops are open or closed during their visit to Greece, the average per capita expenditure for Turkish tourists is at least 500 euros just on store purchases, not taking under account the living expenses. Another fact that shows the financial standing of Turkish tourists who visit Greece is that a typical “tip” at a restaurant is 10-20 euros.
She continues: “The Turks traveling abroad are usually of very high economic and educational status. The poor Turks simply cannot afford to travel abroad. In order to get a visa they must present a series of data to the consulate: data on their job, their deposits and at least two property titles in their name.”
The average age of the Turkish tourist coming to Greece is 25-45 years old, but there are also some who are over 80. “Most of them come from Istanbul and Izmir. If they come once, they tend to come again and again to the point that I now know them by their first names,” says Nermin who often comes in contact with visitors from the neighboring country for the last ten years.
Why do they come to Greece?
“Seven out of ten come to visit areas where their ancestors used to live. They arrive in these villages for example Kozani or Ptolemaida and try to find their parents or grandparents’ homes and when they leave their eyes are swollen from crying. They bring bags with them, which are filled with Greek soil, to take back to Turkey with them,” Nermin comments.
The remaining 30% visit Greece for shopping and recreation. In any case, 80% of all Turkish tourists visit historical sites and monuments, showing a strong interest in Christian churches and all religious sites and seem to show interest in Meteora.
Have you asked Turkish tourists how they feel when they visit a Christian church?
“Yes, I often ask them when we leave a church because when they go in, they light candles, they don’t speak, just listen. One time a lady told me she feels like she does in a mosque because the church is a house of God as well,” recounts Nermin.
How do they feel when they come to Greece?
“Some people tell me that after the issuance of their visas they feel fear but once they arrive in Greece they immediately forget about it. They say that the politicians have caused damage to the relations between the two countries. They come to Greece and completely change their opinion, they always leave so excited. They return to their country and actually advertise Greece: for its people, its beauty and its products. I feel that this is the impression they get.”
Do they comment on the Greek economic crisis?
Nermin recounts a certain incident: “I was in Tsimiski Avenue in Thessaloniki along with eight Turkish women doing some window shopping. At some point they saw some shoes they liked and decide to purchase 2 pairs each! It was a quarter to three and the store manager was still inside. I told her that the women would like to buy a total of 16 pairs of shoes, with an average price of 150-180 euros per pair. The manager showed us the clock and told us she couldn’t help us. One of the Turkish women who is an economist and professor at a Turkish university, told me: “Isn’t this supposed to be a country in crisis? If you want to exit the crisis, you must have the will and desire to work.” According to Nermin, the store working hours is an issue that preoccupies Turkish tourists.
All these years, doing this job, have you ever encountered any extraordinary incidents?
Nermin remembers one of the oldest Turks she met in her line of work. He was an 87 year-old former teacher from Bursa whose father originated form Kozani. His students bought him a three-day trip around the Balkans as a gift. When they reached Greece, the tourist group passed from an area near his place of origin. When the group left to return to Turkey the old man couldn’t stop thinking about that place. He decided not to return. He called his son and asked him to come so they could visit his father’s village. He went there and spent time with the locals; he found his father’s house and an old family watermill. Now he is writing a book and he says that when and if he finishes he will go back and give it to the locals who so warmly welcomed him to their village.
“Another incident involved a Turk and a Greek, both professional drivers. The Turk had reached the port of Igoumenitsa but he didn’t know how to reach his destination which was Naples in Italy. He didn’t speak any Greek or any other language for that matter. But in the end he met the Greek driver who helped him. “This happened 17 years ago. I met the Turkish driver because of my work and he told me: “The Greek driver who helped and didn’t just leave me there became my brother. After that I learnt Greek just so I could speak with him…” she recounts. Nearly two decades later, the two men still keep in touch and visit each other during their travels.
The increase of Turkish tourists in Greece is also confirmed by statistic data. According to the Thessaloniki Hotels Association (THA) during the first semester of 2013, there was a 50.10% increase in overnight stays of Turks in Greece compare to the previous year. Meanwhile, Turks ranked third in the list of foreigners who visit Thessaloniki right after Russians and Cypriots.